GLASS, PAPER, BEANS

REVELATIONS ON THE NATURE AND VALUE OF ORDINARY THINGS

Lingering over a cup of coffee and a newspaper at Boston's Someday Cafe, Cohen (Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, 1994) immerses herself in a Proustian rumination on the origins of the familiar: glass, paper, coffee beans. ``Who made this thing? Will I ever meet them?'' Cohen traces each of the three objects back to its beginnings: The paper her Boston Globe is printed on started out as a tree in New Brunswick; her glass tumbler came from a factory in Lancaster, Ohio; her designer coffee is brewed from beans grown by a cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico. Simple enough, tracking these items back to their source; but Cohen goes much farther. She composes a marvelous social history of each object, looking back over the millennia to their rudimentary beginnings and up to their appearance in a modern coffee house. She learns that each now common item was once ``as gold . . . a thing of wonder'' whose rarity was ``constructed, imposed'' by political and religious powers. Demystification did not occur until the Industrial Age, when mass production and modern transportation made them accessible, inexpensive, profitable commodities. Cohen's examination of the discovery, or invention, of glass and paper and the development of coffee may seem skimpy to experts in each field. Her portraits of the workaday lives of logger Brent Boyd, coffee grower Basilio Salinas, and glass-factory night supervisor Ruth Lamp are ploddingly detailed and personal. Those passages—how Brent's harvester operates; what Ruth packs for lunch; the maze of Basilio's extended family—pale in comparison to her historical research. But it is her fascinating review of the myths, anecdotes, and legends surrounding the origins of these items that is the highlight of the book. Cohen's discourses on time, money, and ``commodities fetishism'' will tire a few readers, but she nicely ties it all together for those with patience.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-385-47819-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1996

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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